Ask just about any player to identify the best English course on the Open Championship rota and most are likely to answer, “Royal Birkdale.”
A look at the impressive list of winners there reinforces that view. Since the oldest major first visited in 1954 – you have to wonder why it never got the nod before then – the Lancashire links has consistently identified superior champions.
Peter Thomson was first. Then Arnold Palmer. Thommo again. Lee Trevino. Johnny Miller. Tom Watson. Ian Baker-Finch. Mark O’Meara. Padraig Harrington. Every time, the man left holding the Claret Jug has either been an all-time great or, at the time of his victory, at least one of the three or four best players on the planet. That’s a sure indication of Royal Birkdale’s quality. If I had a golf course and that was the list of past winners, I’d be content enough knowing my course was a bit special.
My own impression of Birkdale is that it is a natural-version of what the TPC courses in America try to be. In other words, it is a “stadium course” armed with holes running through high dunes that offer perfect vantage points for thousands of spectators. That wasn’t what first stood out when I competed in the 2008 Open though. I was unlucky enough to be out on the opening morning when the weather was horrific – pouring rain and strong winds. The course was incredibly difficult in such extreme conditions. I remember walking off not entirely unhappy with my 77.
For a course to twice identify Peter Thomson and then nearly come up with Greg Norman as its champion, it has to be one playable for all types of golfers. – Geoff Ogilvy
The cut that year fell on 149, or nine over-par – I was on 151 – and even by the end, when the rain stopped and the wind dropped a bit, Padraig’s winning score was still three-over. And only three others – Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Greg Norman – shot lower than 290. It was tough!
Again, what made things so difficult – apart from the awful weather – is the fact that Birkdale plays “narrow” compared with other Open courses. There is an awful lot of really bad stuff you can hit into if you start missing fairways (which I did). At Birkdale you can’t get away with waywardness off the tee. The rough is full of what I can only describe as some sort of “brambly gorse” that is almost impossible to escape from.
One other thing that sticks in my memory is how often the holes at Birkdale change direction, more than any other Open course. A lot of them just go “out-and-back,” but Birkdale wanders, which means you are faced with almost every kind of wind direction over the course of the 18-holes.
Almost every day there are really long holes and really short holes. The par-3s are especially memorable, too. So there is a lot of variety amidst a large number of doglegs, all of them with an “awkward” feel on the tee.
All of which is no surprise, when you think about it. For a course to twice identify Peter Thomson and then nearly come up with Greg Norman as its champion, it has to be one playable for all types of golfers. Thommo and Greg were both great, but they didn’t have much in common when it came to their styles of play. Yet Birkdale let them both shine.
On the other side of that coin, Birkdale is the sort of course that exposes the less-than great for what they don’t have. The top players tend to have every shot in the bag, so on a course that asks for all of those they are inevitably going to make their way onto the leader board. So the guys with least number of weaknesses are going to prosper. I like that scenario.
Then there is the 18th. I’m not sure why this is – and it might just be coincidence – but great things have always happened on Birkdale’s finishing hole.
At the 1969 Ryder Cup, Jack Nicklaus famously conceded Tony Jacklin’s short putt and the matches were tied.
In 1976 Seve Ballesteros announced himself to the world with an audacious chip shot between the green side bunkers en route to finishing second behind Miller.
Seven years later, Tom Watson clinched what was his last major win with an epic 2-iron that found the heart of the putting surface.
And in 1998 Justin Rose – then a 17-year old amateur – holed out a wedge for an unlikely birdie and finished tied for fourth.
Oh yes, one last thing. The clubhouse. For someone from outside the UK, the mental picture of clubhouses at Open venues is of ancient castle-like buildings. But that’s not the case at Birkdale. The “art deco” clubhouse is something to see and one of the most recognisable in the world. That’s all I’m saying.